As night falls and the families head home, Shenzhen’s bright young things emerge to eat, drink, and listen to live music. At Hutaoli they do all three at once. You might have to wait for a table, an inconvenience you’ll soon forget once you’re drinking cocktails from glass jars, listening to live music, and eating spicy Sichuan food (try the suan la fen—bean-starch noodles dressed in a hot, sour, mouth-numbing sauce).
Urbanus played a huge role in the success of OCT-Loft, setting the development strategy and laying the plans for the first phase of construction. Deciding to keep rather than demolish the 10 existing buildings—old factories, warehouses, and dormitories—the firm instead planned for organic, organized chaos. Lam and his colleagues were sure (and they were right) that small-scale retail and food outlets and independent studios would spring up to “fill the gaps,” as they put it, “setting up new relationships between buildings by wrapping and penetrating the existing fabric.” In the case of the OCT Art & Design Gallery, the wrapping was literal: Urbanus encased the original structure in a glass curtain wall comprised of hundreds of hexagonal frames, leaving the scarred warehouse facade underneath untouched. Acute angles jut out from the wall and into the gallery space, making you feel like you’re stuck inside a building that was sketched out using only a geometry set. During an exhibition by the Tokyo TDC Design Awards early last year, the winning film, Now is Better by New York–based design firm Sagmeister & Walsh, played on continuous loop. An eerie, a cappella soundtrack only increased the surreal experience inside.
Cohosted by Shenzhen and Hong Kong, the Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture is the only biennial exhibition in the world dedicated exclusively to the themes of urbanism and urbanization. While previously held at OCT-Loft, the biennale’s Shenzhen component graduated to a bigger and better venue for its three-month-long 2013/2014 edition: a derelict glass-manufacturing plant in the Shekou port area that was transformed into a 122,000-square-meter exhibition space dubbed the Value Factory. Walking amid the building’s network of canals and troughs, where molten glass was once set in molten-tin baths, I was not always sure what was art and what had once been factory life.
“What Ole [Bouman, the Dutch curator] did with the Value Factory was phenomenal,” says Marisa Yiu, a Hong Kong–based architect who set up the biennale’s rendition of Studio-X, a network of urban research labs established by Columbia University’s school of architecture. She also says that the Shenzhen side of the event was “amazing in terms of planning ahead,” at least compared with her rushed experience on the Hong Kong side during the biennale’s 2009 edition. “It’s more state run in Shenzen and they have developers on board who commit pretty early on. But in Hong Kong, we submitted a proposal in May 2009, were appointed in June, and had to open in December. We actually published a book called Instant Culture as a response.”
But “instant culture” is a criticism some designers level at Shenzhen, too. “Planners here only look for the big names,” says Lam, who is critical of decisions such as bringing in Rem Koolhaas and his Dutch firm OMA to design the new Shenzhen Stock Exchange building. From the right vantage point, the headquarters of China’s third-largest stock exchange looks like it’s hovering on a flying carpet—the imposing gray monolith rises from a three-story platform cantilevered almost 40 meters above ground; OMA, the firm behind Beijing’s famously inverted CCTV skyscraper, describes it “as if lifted by the same speculative euphoria that drives the market.” But Lam is unimpressed. “Rem Koolhaas comes to Shenzhen and they give him an office tower. Why not get him to help with generic housing developments? I think that would have made a big contribution.”
The city has also been given a lift by the Massimiliano Fuksas–designed Terminal 3 at Shenzen Bao’an International Airport. Completed in 2013, it is the largest single public building to be built to date in Shenzhen and the first commission in mainland China for the Italian architect, who clearly jumped in at the deep end with a project of such behemoth scale. The structure’s shape is meant to evoke that of a manta ray, but step inside and you’ll feel more like you’ve entered a spacecraft. The whiteness is almost blinding. A huge honeycomb of metal mesh undulates over the immense, open space. Everything shines. Slim, smooth, white columns extend 25 meters up from the floor. Each one is almost 40 meters apart from the next, increasing the sense of vastness while also instilling mild terror. Are there really enough columns to support so much ceiling?
Every architect knows the importance of first impressions, and Fuksas’s design was aimed squarely at wowing the traveler as soon as he steps inside. From the entrance doors, you should be able to see to the building’s far end, 1,500 meters away. But the view is obstructed. Placed in prime position, front and center not 20 strides from the door, a huge fake pine decorated with plastic yellow flowers protrudes like a nightmarish Christmas tree with melting fairy lights. For Fuksas, it’s an abomination, like dousing a chef’s gourmet masterpiece with ketchup. But despite his best attempts to get the thing removed, the tree stays put.